Municipal court

Casper Municipal Court offices and courts are on the fifth floor of the Hall of Justice in Casper. City Council voted Tuesday to keep alcohol court open.

Local judges should be able to issue rulings in cases without worrying about whether those decisions will affect their employment status.

In Wyoming right now, though, that’s not the case. Municipal judges, who deal with city ordinance violations and sometimes traffic or animal control cases, are chosen by city officials – and if their performance is found lacking, they can be fired by those same city officials.

That doesn’t make sense. City officials have an interest in protecting the city, while judges should have an interest in remaining fair. The legislative branch of government shouldn’t oversee the judicial branch.

For example, what happens if a municipal judge rules against a city council member’s son in a traffic case? The judge could be put in the uncomfortable position of wondering whether her superiors – city officials – would retaliate and fill that spot with a different judge.

The better choice is to allow the voters to decide. That’s the idea with which House Bill 89 was written. The measure, which was recently filed in the Wyoming Legislature and is sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats, would make local judges subject to re-election every four years, like district or circuit judges. The rule would apply only in cities with more than 4,000 people.

“One of the most important positions a judge holds is municipal judge, because that’s where most of the public encounters a judge,” Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, who is sponsoring the bill, told the Star-Tribune. “I don’t think that should be subject to politics. I think it should be up to the voters.”

That’s correct. Judges are most effective when they are seen as neutral, which means as many potential conflicts of interest as possible should be removed. This bill would go a long way toward achieving that.

It’s also important to note that defendants in local courts aren’t entitled to a court-appointed public defender. That means that anyone who can’t afford to hire a lawyer would have to defend himself against local officials, such as the prosecutor or police chief. That list shouldn’t also include the judge in the case.

House Bill 89 would make for better, more transparent court rulings, which would improve how people in Wyoming view their elected leadership. The Legislature should give the measure the strong consideration it deserves.

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